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Heritage - 30: Whitby Cats and Yorkshire Cobles - Seagoing Barques and Inshore Fishing Vessels Along Yorkshire's Coast

Updated on April 26, 2019

Here's a departure - Ship Architecture

The replica ENDEAVOUR, Captain Cook's first ship was a Whitby Collier, or 'Cat', as suitable for inshore work due to its shallow draught as she was on the high seas across the Atlantic and around Cape Horn on her ocean-going debut around the world
The replica ENDEAVOUR, Captain Cook's first ship was a Whitby Collier, or 'Cat', as suitable for inshore work due to its shallow draught as she was on the high seas across the Atlantic and around Cape Horn on her ocean-going debut around the world | Source
This cutaway model of HMS 'Endeavour' Bark is exhibited in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London, and shows the below decks arrangement of stowage, crew and officers' accommodation
This cutaway model of HMS 'Endeavour' Bark is exhibited in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, London, and shows the below decks arrangement of stowage, crew and officers' accommodation
A Whitby 'Cat' cabled in Whitby Harbour at the turn of the 20th Century, taken by the well-known local photographer Frank Meadows Sutcliffe
A Whitby 'Cat' cabled in Whitby Harbour at the turn of the 20th Century, taken by the well-known local photographer Frank Meadows Sutcliffe | Source

Background to the 'Cats' chosen by Capt. Cook for his Pacific voyages

William Falconer's 'Dictionary of the Marine' dated 1769, corrected by Thomas Cadell in 1780 defines 'Cat' as a ship employed in the coal trade, formed from a Norwegian model. The vessels are distinguished by a narrow stern, projecting quarters, a deep waist, and by having no ornamental figure on the prow (which was generally snub-nosed and vertical or square to the water.

Being familiar with the vessels from working the colliers between Newcastle-upon-Tyne and London, as well as across to Norway and the Baltic for the timber trade, Cook chose the Whitby 'Cat' for its sound construction and its ability in shallower waters, mindful that he might need to close on the shore for charting purposes.

'The Earl of Pembroke', Cook's first choice for exploration in the Pacific, had been built at Fishburn's Yard, Whitby and was refitted for the Royal Navy, renamed 'Endeavour'. A vessel designed for difficult weather conditions and of shallow draught, 'Endeavour' was ideally suited to Cook's purpose in being able to be sailed closer into shore. This capacity was demonstrated amply where the 'Cats' were used on coastal work to the alum workings near Whitby. Channels had been blasted in the rock to take the reduced keel, enabling crews to moor at high tide without the vessels 'keeling over' (no pun intended). When the sea went out the angle they settled at was slight. 'Endeavour's' design was a life-saver when she struck the Great Barrier Reef. A normal keeled ship would have been holed beyond redemption, whereas 'Endeavour' was towed into Botany Bay within the reef and patched up sufficiently to get the crew to Batavia in the Dutch East Indies.

On his second voyage Cook selected the ships 'Marquis of Granby' (launched 1770) and 'Marquis of Rockingham' (also launched 1770). He also selected a pair of John Harrison's sea clocks to test for himself, to establish longtitude in uncharted waters.The two ships were renamed 'Resolution' and 'Adventure'.

For his third and last - fateful - voyage Cook took 'Resolution' again and another ship, 'Diligence', renamed 'Discovery'.

Trial by Power - a lone 'Cat' ringed by modern vessels

Whitby Harbour very early in the 20th Century with another 'Cat'. Steam was overtaken by diesel,  Yet the 'romance' of sail lingers. Cook rounded the 'Horn' more than once when circumnavigating the globe
Whitby Harbour very early in the 20th Century with another 'Cat'. Steam was overtaken by diesel, Yet the 'romance' of sail lingers. Cook rounded the 'Horn' more than once when circumnavigating the globe | Source

'Endeavour' was typical of Cook's refurbished collier ships...

When assigned on the voyage to take Joseph Banks to Tahiti to observe the passage of Venus she carried ten four-pounder guns that measured 6'-0" (180 cms) along the breech, weighing 11-12 cwt, positioned amidships on the lower deck five to a side. She was also fitted with twelve swivel guns, 2'-10" (85 cms) long, to be loaded with shot for short-range firing, i.e., ship-to-ship or at smaller vessels almost alongside, should the occasion arise.

Ships such as Cook's on 'detached' (non-military) duties, that encompassed voyages of discovery or scientific purpose displayed the red ensign. She was to all intents and purposes on civilian, rather than on naval duty. This flag denoted also vessels undertaking merchant services. Ships on military or blockading duties displayed the white ensign. In either case the Union Flag of the time occupied the top left quarter of the ensign, minus the saltire (diagonal red cross) of St Patrick which was added only in 1801 at the height of the Napoleonic War.

And now to the Coble...

LNER railway poster shows Yorkshire cobles drawn up on the South Bay sands at Scarborough
LNER railway poster shows Yorkshire cobles drawn up on the South Bay sands at Scarborough | Source
Yorkshire coble in the creek at Staithes, low tide  - the vessel's 'heritage' is shown in the sleek lines of its prow and 'waistline'
Yorkshire coble in the creek at Staithes, low tide - the vessel's 'heritage' is shown in the sleek lines of its prow and 'waistline' | Source
Early view of a coble under sail. These vessels were engine powered from post-WWII years
Early view of a coble under sail. These vessels were engine powered from post-WWII years | Source

With their Viking beginnings...

Originally only under sail - usually a standing lug - most cobles still had sailing gear aboard but by the 1950s many were motorised, the shaft and propeller running in a 'tunnel' protected by twin bilge keels (or drafts) astern.

In general sailing gear has been removed, leaving space for a forward wheelhouse. They keep the deep 'forefoot' however, pronounced sheer and noticeable tumblehome waist. Twin bilge runners (drafts) run right aft. Boats would be custom-built for local conditions, the design varying marginally from place to place and builder. Modern boats often have a small wheelhouse forward, a half-deck to shelter the engine and gantries to support line haulers.

Although nowhere near as many cobles operate from Staithes, most are moored in the creek by the footbridge, although some are moored beyond the harbour wall. Few are still registered in the fishery, many now being in private hands as leisure vessels. At Robin Hood's Bay they are virtually non-existent. Some modified ones are still based at Whitby and Scarborough, and others are scattered between Redcar and Bridlington or Hornsea.

Fishing was, and still is inshore, generally long line, or hunting for crab or lobster. Summertime trips around the bay or fishing trips for visitors supplement income for some. These days boats are kept ashore on lorry-wheeled launching trolleys or cradles. Once horses were used for launch and recovery, both for fishing vessels and lifeboats. Tractor haulage has been well established since the 1950s. On bringing in cobles the bows are swung into the incoming surf, ready for the next launch and the boats are drawn out stern first.

Variants - modified Cobles

Diagrammatic view of a coble seen from the stern. Based on the Norse ship design, the vessels were once double-ended, only latterly built with squared-off sterns. This vessel has been built to have a motor attached
Diagrammatic view of a coble seen from the stern. Based on the Norse ship design, the vessels were once double-ended, only latterly built with squared-off sterns. This vessel has been built to have a motor attached | Source
View of Filey cobles drawn up at the head of the landing
View of Filey cobles drawn up at the head of the landing | Source
A much patched up Coble with cab and net winch on Fisherman's Square, Redcar (off Lord Street, behind High Street East)
A much patched up Coble with cab and net winch on Fisherman's Square, Redcar (off Lord Street, behind High Street East) | Source
Not far south, a coble has been drawn up on its trailer onto the sands below Marske village
Not far south, a coble has been drawn up on its trailer onto the sands below Marske village | Source
See description below
See description below | Source

David Brandon's look at the Yorkshire Coast from north to south, inlets known as 'wykes', wide bays, river mouths and creeks such as at Staithes with its steep cliffsides. The broad sweep of Bridlington's or Hornsea's seafront, Filey Brigg and Flamborough's North Landing, Scarborough's two bays with its ruined castle on the promontory that divides the vista. Whitby's River Esk accessed from between the twin beacons with the abbey on the east cliff, Captain Cook's statue and whalebone arch on West Cliff...

Published 2010, The History Press Ltd., ISBN 978-0752457521

The North Landing, Flamborough with its cobles drawn up, ready for launching
The North Landing, Flamborough with its cobles drawn up, ready for launching

Cobles still registered for commercial fishing are usually manned by individuals or pairs, the amount of space aboard being cramped once nets or pots are stowed aboard for the day's work. You can usually see them leave early in the morning, to return in the afternoon with their catch. Watch them from the clifftops, skirting the coast on the way to and from their fishing grounds. Rough weather and strong currents on the coast can severely restrict working hours, and income in autumn and winter can be a fraction of the summer's takings. Take a walk along the seafront anywhere from Redcar to Hornsea and buy fish, crab or other shellfish direct from the boats. Or at Whitby, Scarborough, Filey and Bridlington visit one of the seafront cabins and buy a coffee and a crab sandwich or whatever you fancy from a wide range of filled rolls and white fish.

*I tend to use my parking disc (see local post offices and some shops, free parking is for two hours) to park near the castle at Scarborough and walk down the steep hill to the harbour to take a look around the fish quay. A new lifeboat house is under construction close by, with official opening scheduled for spring/early summer, 2016.

© 2015 Alan R Lancaster

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    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Well that's the intros done, Geoffrey. A fairly widespread root system there. Food for writing, if not the individuals themselves then the areas they came from and their 'callings'. Look forward to seeing some pages materialise under your name.

      As for the Empress Zoe, she appears in one of my pages that involve Harald Sigurdsson ('Hardradi'), and he features on more than one of my pages regarding the year 1066 as well as on the last part of 'Hunding's Saga' (No. 52, 'Cornered on Lake Ilmen').

      Racehorses feature on the page in the TRAVEL NORTH series about Middleham Castle. We've got nine racecourses in Yorkshire. They like their gee-gees up that way. Our local ones are Redcar and Catterick Bridge.

    • profile image

      zoetropo 

      3 years ago

      Hi again Alan, I'm Geoffrey Tobin. I use "zoetropo" in honour of several favourite characters named Zoe, among them the splendidly named Zoe Porphyrogenita, Empress of Byzantium: not a known relative, I hasten to add!

      Britain being a great seafaring nation, I'd assumed everyone in the UK had some maritime connection. Maybe my own correlate strongly with the accident of birth in a distant former colony?

      My mother's side are however very grounded in the soil, working as Queensland stockmen and being horsemen at heart, e.g. Tweed originating in Cheveley near Newmarket, and Kitchen who came from Germoe, Redruth and other parts near the old Godolphin estate in Cornwall. No known fishermen among these, unfortunately.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      I'll look forward to seeing this on your Hub-site, zoetropo (what's your real name, this is just an online i.d.). It's bound to be good, with these personal links to the UK and other parts of N. Europe. Go for it!

      Nobody in our family on either side had links with the sea, and I suspect few on Hub-pages have sea-going ancestry, so you've got a different perspective there.

    • profile image

      zoetropo 

      3 years ago

      Cook and company were sailing north, to New Guinea.

    • profile image

      zoetropo 

      3 years ago

      Perhaps a mite narcissistic, but I would rather write about my nautical ancestors, the Chapmans, Foys, Tobins and Driscolls, who included merchant mariners, yachtsmen, lighthouse keepers, shipwrights and naval architects, and perhaps a naturalist and an explorer or two.

      One possible relative, Thomas Chapman, a native of the Whitby district, was a Lieutenant in the fleet that captured Gibraltar. His father-in-law was the Lindon shipwright William Colson. Thomas later joined the Swedish navy, his eldest son Charles was an officer in the Swedish East India company, while another son, Fredrik Henrik, became Sweden's most celebrated naval architect.

      Another, George Tobin, a cousin of Lady Nelson's, sailed with one Cochrane, Bligh and Flinders. His diaries and water-colours are prized by historians and museums.

      Definite relatives are John Tobin a shipwright of London and Newcastle, London-based mariner Daniel Driscoll, William Foy the lighthouse keeper at Port Philip Heads, his son William Cuthbert Foy who was a naval architect in Melbourne and London, and Charles Chapman a yachtsman who drowned during the Port Adelaide regatta of 31 Dec 1860 leaving a young widow and infant son.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      They did make it down the Queensland coast after all then. Some effort, eh? Maybe you could furnish a page about that from your own [Australian] perspective? That could be your writing debut here on HP.

      Best of luck.

    • profile image

      zoetropo 

      3 years ago

      'Sydney' is correct. Cape Tribulation however is 110 km north of Cairns, North Queensland.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Nice to see you took the time to 'drop in'.

      I thought the Barrier reef ran down off the coast of NSW. 'Endeavour Bark' scraped on the reef and had to be hauled off by its boats. If they'd had to row all the way down from off the coast of Queensland to Botany Bay they'd have been stranded. The ship would have settled, with the hole in her hull. This was off Cape Tribulation (p177, 'CAPTAIN JAMES COOK' by Richard Hough) by Cook 'because here began all our troubles'. Even with the ship's four pumps they couldn't have got from off Queensland to Botany Bay - unless the reef off NSW goes by a different name. It's in the book above, pp 176-187 (ISBN 0-340-61723-3) as the Great Barrier Reef.

      Anyway, I thought it was 'Sydney'. Enlightenment sought.

    • profile image

      zoetropo 

      3 years ago

      Botany Bay behind the Barrier Reef? Sidneysiders would be shocked to learn that their southern harbour used to be in North Queensland!

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello again Lawrence, I've got 'Master and Commander' on dvd. I'll have to look closer at it (although that'll be an uphill job with all the weather effects).

      I did write 'replica', by the way. She visited Whitby, Hartlepool and Tynemouth on her way round, Whitby obviously, being the original was built there as 'The Earl of Pembroke' in the 1770s.

      As an NZ export, Russell Crowe's doing better than the lamb.

      TTFN.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      3 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Alan

      It wasn't the Endeavour but a locally built one

      One thing if you're interested remember the Russel Crowe movie 'Master and commander, far side of the sea'

      They actually used footage of the Endeavour rounding Cape Horn for the Frigate he was commanding in a storm (No CGI!) going round the Cape.

      Lawrence

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Lawrence, I understand the 'Endeavour' replica has been around the Antipodes, but I don't think the crew takes passengers out to sea. In and around Whitby harbour there is a half-sized replica that does take passengers, if you ever get 'topside'. They sail some way along the coast (although I think the 'ship' has a motor and the sails are just cosmetic). There was a full sized ship of that era named 'Grand Turk' that stayed at Whitby for a while and was open to visitors. She did sail under wind power, but left a year or so ago.

      Glad you enjoyed reading this.

    • lawrence01 profile image

      Lawrence Hebb 

      3 years ago from Hamilton, New Zealand

      Alan

      This hub brought back a few memories of places. Loved the information on the Endeavour, a few weeks ago we got to the Maritime Museum here in NZ. They had a few ships that used to ply the inland waerways here in NZ but sadly all the places on the harbour cruise were booked (they use a 19th century schooner fully restored)

      Great hub

      Lawrence

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      ...And here was I thinking it was excitement! Take a look around - through the profile - and savour the read.

    • TrixieShi profile image

      Diana Strenka 

      3 years ago from North Carolina

      Oh, apologies. Didn't mean to post twice. Still getting the hang of this.

    • alancaster149 profile imageAUTHOR

      Alan R Lancaster 

      3 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

      Hello Trixie, twice over within an hour, eh? They are handsome but simple ships. Workmanlike. The man who owned the ships Cook worked on was a Quaker named John Walker (no relation to Johnnie, the man on the whisky bottle). Cook passed his pilot's, and then his mate's ticket on these in his early twenties, crossed the North Sea and the oceans in them.

      All working vessels, good, solid. They had ships like these in your water's too. How about the cobles? These were also money-makers in their time, still are.

    • TrixieShi profile image

      Diana Strenka 

      3 years ago from North Carolina

      This is one beautiful ship.

    • TrixieShi profile image

      Diana Strenka 

      3 years ago from North Carolina

      Wow! This is incredible!

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